Wonkfest 2017: reflections on an HE festival

Regeneris was out in full-force for WonkHE’s first annual conference Wonkfest. Tim Fanning and Karina Csopik reflect on some of the highlights and take away insights.

Wonkfest billed itself as a policy jamboree…a festival. It certainly felt like a different type of conference: informal (no suits or ties allowed!) and with slogans such as “Revenge of the Experts” to advertise the event. Staid it was not.

Looking through the programme, we were struck by how fast-moving the policy environment is for HE at the moment, and how it currently seems at the centre of so many debates. How do we measure the value and success of HE? What role do HEIs play in local economic development and the industrial strategy? How do we best regulate the sector? What role does HE have in delivering apprenticeships and social mobility? How do universities brand themselves in an increasingly competitive environment? What does Brexit mean for the sector?

Here are some of the things we took away.

Need to clearly communicate value

On the first day we heard about the need for universities to ‘up their game’ in terms of external communications: a theme that came up a few times in different sessions. Given the reputational challenges experienced around fees, executive pay, access and so on, branding experts hammered home the importance of clear branding and communication strategies, and on communicating value to a wide range of stakeholders. In an increasingly competitive environment, the importance of differentiation in branding also came through strongly. With Brexit and the range of risks it poses, there was also some helpful advice on the importance of getting public affairs and lobbying right.

We were struck by one comment that Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, made in his much-anticipated appearance at the end of Day One: universities need to “demonstrate their relevance”.

HE is uniquely placed to help deliver industrial strategy

On the debate stage, the focus was on the then forthcoming industrial strategy. It was noted that the sector is well placed to take the long-term view that is needed, as it can think outside political cycles. Yet there was a cautionary note as The Industrial Strategy Commission’s Richard Jones argued that universities need to take a more innovative and strategic approach to their knowledge exchange activities to align with industrial priorities, and to assert the importance of their contributions. This requires regional and national coordination to avoid duplication and ensure capacity isn’t spread too thinly. Universities need to work with each other as well as LEPs to effectively align their focus.

Liz Shutt from the University of Lincoln, an institution with which we have been working, gave some practical examples. Liz is jointly employed by the university and the LEP and so reflects a dual approach to policy development. Liz was keen to emphasise that universities are important for local leadership, but also rebalancing the UK economy: it goes beyond the North-South divide, or even London and the rest of the UK. There are disparities between urban, rural, and coastal economies which universities are reasonably well placed to help address.

How do we measure the value of HE?

We picked up on some of these themes in our own talk on universities’ local economic contribution which drew on our work around the country to give our own take on the economic and social value of the sector to local economies see here for more. Jo Johnson amplified our point with his call for universities to take a bigger role in economic growth (for this, read the Knowledge Exchange Framework), and deepen their roots by meeting the needs of employers.

We triggered a rich and wide ranging discussion which touched on the value for money of HE for students to the wider opportunities and threats facing the sector going forward. The economic value of HE can only be fully reflected with a rounded set of valuation metrics.

HE’s social role and responsibilities

On Day Two we heard from David Goodhart on the cultural dividing lines in the UK. What role has HE played in contributing to these differences in cultural identity between different groups, and with so many young people attending university, what does this mean for the future? He went on to question whether universities have indeed lost touch with their local areas?

The theme of wider social responsibilities of the sector was strongly reflected in sessions on social mobility and universities’ civic contributions. We heard that universities have a critical role in social mobility, and heard examples of good practice from Kings College London among others. It is clear that social value is going to be high up the agenda over the next year or so. Colleagues of mine have been working on this for property developers, but it is now something HE really needs to take seriously too.

HE and public debate

The conference finished with a fascinating contribution from the FT’s Tim Harford who spoke about how to fight back with facts in a world they are seemingly losing currency.

After hitting the audience with a series of mildly depressing conclusions on how difficult it is to counter spurious claims with hard facts, thankfully, he finished on an optimistic note. The only real way to persuade people to use facts is to get people to think. This requires interesting puzzles which ignite people’s curiosity and sense of wonder.

Which, after all, is what higher education is ultimately all about.

Picture credit: http://www.wonkfest.co.uk/


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